What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Franzen's Flaws

Victoria Patterson, in her “Not Pretty” (Los Angeles Review of Books, February 25, 2012), calls Jonathan Franzen’s depiction of Edith Wharton, in his “A Rooting Interest” (The New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012), “mean-spirited and off-key.” She says Franzen’s piece contains “a strange negative slanting of Wharton’s biography and a peculiarly misplaced concentration on her physical appearance.” Patterson’s critique strikes me as valid. I disliked Franzen’s piece for a slightly different reason. He doesn’t provide any quotations from Wharton’s work. He’s so focused on plot analysis, he omits any examination of her writing as pure writing. He tells us that Wharton’s “a born writer,” but he doesn’t show us her writing. John Updike, in the foreword to his great Picked-Up Pieces (1976), formulated a sort of poetics of book reviewing. One of his “rules” is “Give enough direct quotation – at least one extended passage – of the book’s prose so the reviewer’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.” Franzen might reply that “A Rooting Interest” isn’t a book review; it’s his attempt to answer “What to make of Edith Wharton, on her hundred-and-fiftieth birthday?” But in addressing that question, Franzen summarizes the plots of three of Wharton’s novels (The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence), tracing what he perceives to be her preoccupation with female beauty. In my opinion, he should’ve provided at least a “taste,” as Updike says, of each of these works. His failure to do so is another aspect of his “peculiarly misplaced concentration” (to borrow Patterson’s words) on Wharton’s looks, rather than on her writing.

Credit: The above portrait of Edith Wharton is by Thierry Guitard; it appears in The New Yorker (April 16, 2007) as an illustration for John Updike's "The Changeling."

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